Call it fate or divine providence, but it was undeniably fitting that Chris Tomlin’s return to his alma mater happened during Tyler Junior College’s Homecoming Week.
Tomlin – a 1992 TJC alumnus, Grand Saline native and Grammy-winning Christian recording artist – was on campus Thursday, Oct. 26, to accept an award as a Legend of TJC, which honors the College’s notable, living alumni.
The lobby of Jean Browne Theatre in the Wise Cultural Arts building was named in his honor, and a display of Tomlin memorabilia will be added soon.
TJC President Dr. Mike Metke said, “We know that Chris honed his craft right here in this building, and the speech and theater offices are right off this lobby. He earned a coveted spot on our nationally recognized speech and debate team and was a terrific competitor for us.”
“These are my roots and this is home,” Tomlin said to the crowd gathered in the newly named Chris Tomlin Lobby. “I’m so proud of where I come from and proud of this place, and I’m proud of this school and the teachers who really shaped me here.”
He singled out his TJC speech professors and mentors M’Liss Hindman and Jacque Shackelford for helping him find his direction.
Tomlin said, “When I walked into this lobby in 1991, I had no idea how this place would shape my life the way it did. I was trying to figure out who I was just like any other 18- or 19-year-old, and they helped me in so many ways.”
“I’m so proud of where I come from and proud of this place, and I’m proud of this school and the teachers who really shaped me here.”
Current TJC speech team co-captain Alex Dickson has her eye on how Tomlin’s life was molded by his time at TJC.
“TJC is different than I expected, but in a really great way because there are a lot of connections you can get here and TJC actually prepares you for life,” said Dickson, a sophomore speech major from Tyler.
“It’s nice to see that someone like Chris started at TJC and then went out and achieved his goals after leaving here.”
After TJC, Dickson plans to transfer to the University of Arkansas and pursue a career as a speech professor and speech and debate director.
“I want to be a M’Liss Hindman,” she said.
At an event later in Wise Auditorium, Hindman and Shackelford described their first encounters with Tomlin as a student.
Shackelford remembered him as somewhat shy, but she said, “I knew this kid had some kind of magic.”
So, she introduced him to her colleague M’Liss Hindman, who recruited him to the TJC speech and debate team. He went on to earn first-place awards across the country for his speech about country music, for which he wrote an original song.
“Jacque and I got to see Chris develop into a poised, polished performer that first year,” she said.
Hindman said the Tomlin’s speech became so popular and he became so popular on the competition circuit that students would beg him to perform between rounds.
She quoted the first line of the song he wrote for that award-winning speech: “If my music never makes it to the big show …”
“Well, Chris,” she said to her former student on Thursday, “you made it to the big show.”
Tomlin’s hometown was also well represented on Thursday, with a contingent of about 100 Grand Saline high school students in attendance for the Wise Auditorium event.
The students are part of the TJC Grand Saline Promise, an earned scholarship program in which qualifying students can earn two years at TJC by meeting certain standards during their high school years.
Micah Lewis, Grand Saline ISD superintendent and longtime friend of Tomlin, said, “We truly take pride in the fact that you graduated from Grand Saline High School and Tyler Junior College. We’re even more proud of what you’ve done worldwide. You have led so many people to a new or deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. We love you, we love your family, and we’re so glad you’re here today.”
During a question-and-answer session, Metke asked Tomlin what advice he would give to the students in the audience and what he wished he had known as a freshman at TJC.
Tomlin said, “One thing I would say is that ‘who you are is more important than what you do.’ I would also be a little less afraid of taking risks. ‘Nothing ventured nothing gained’ have been the four words I’ve lived by.”
At the end of the program, Tomlin was told that The Chris Tomlin TJC Grand Saline Promise Scholarship had been established in his honor.
“When I think about this scholarship and the naming of the lobby and everything that’s happened today, there’s something really special about this because those other things came out of achievements, songs people loved, or things people could measure,” he said.
“But when I think about here, this was before there were any songs, before I had a record contract, before I had a band or gone on tour or anything else. It was here that people from Grand Saline and Tyler really believed in me and saw something in me that I didn’t even see myself. I’m so grateful and humbled today.”